Some Things That are True About France

These are a few things to help Americans understand what’s happening in France (and even some suggestive gesturing as to why you should care).

  • It has some of the best healthcare system in the world. This is arguable, but only in the edge cases. Access to healthcare, and the practical matters of getting help are so far and above what America offers anyone but the ultrarich that it’s hardly worth knitpicking. France has one of the longest life expediencies in the world, and is second only to Japan in life expectancy at age 65 according to the OECD. That number is important, since people who do dumb things when they’re young and get themselves killed shouldn’t be held against the record of a healthcare system.


  • This great care is threatened by a shortage of doctors in the countryside and smaller cities, and by nurses and other staff in the hospitals. Nurses are underpaid and overworked, and so they are leaving and not being replaced.


  • Not everyone is on strike, even during a general strike. In some ways, it’s not that big of a strike. Doctors, police, people working in the legal system, and others considered vital to the maintenance of society take an oath not to strike. Also while everyone can join a general strike, they don’t have to be paid by their employers, and striking can be difficult and expensive especially for employees of private businesses. It isn’t so much how many people strike in a general strike, it’s who strikes, and how that affects the country. The backbone of the French unions is public workers, and so mostly it’s public services affected. Right now it’s almost impossible to get around easily. The trains aren’t running, city transit isn’t running. Some schools are affected now, but tomorrow many more will not be in session.


  • French vacations are serious business. Everyone (other than freelancers) get a month off a year, minimum. Not even Macron will touch French vacation. “That’s a good way to get 90%+ strike,” my French partner, and sometimes translator, told me.



  • And then, of course, there’s retirement benefits, which are at the center of this current French political crisis. They are complicated but in short:

They are computed on the best 25 years of your career, which generally means that if you have some rough patches you don’t lose too much because of it. Retirement age is 62, and you get 50% of what you made for those best 25 years. Some fields, like firefighters, have earlier retirement ages, to make up for it, they pay in more money along the way.

For state employees, retirement is calculated at 75% pay for the last six months of their career.

Macron wants to change this system, to something “points-based” — or more directly based on what you made over your life. The specifics are not public yet — some kind of draft is supposed to come out tomorrow, but even with what people have seen, it will be far less money to live on, especially for the most vulnerable. Even the police, despite reassurance that they won’t lose any money, are getting nervous, and rumors are some will be in the next protest.

  • France doesn’t share America’s let the poor die in the streets approach to the old and infirm, a stance considered to be economic stimulus and a success condition to many banking-minded economists and policy makers. At least, for now.

Tomorrow is another protest, and France will continue to contemplate what kind of France it wants to be.

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39 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    As mentioned on your earlier thread, the issue is not whether reform is needed in pensions, labor regulation (short-term contracts and unfair dismissals), or the economy in general. It’s about priorities.

    Reform is rarely about simple refinement, rationalization, and efficiency. It is about adjusting the balance of power between employer and employees, and who picks up the tab.

    In the US, government uniformly supports employers, the idea of balance is derided except in public speechifying, and labor is nearly always made to up the tab. Those are social as well as economic and political priorities. That France does not share them is a matter of pride.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    A reminder to myself that cultural differences matter, despite a common preference for things like denim trousers and the occasional le hamburger.

    This example involves the UK. An American food website failed to note the distinction between minced meat and mincemeat, and crafted a ground beef apple pie. If England and America are separated by their common language, what hope for the French and Americans?

    • P J Evans says:

      That pie would at least be closer than the shepherd’s pie I saw this weekend as an illustration of a mincemeat pie. (A piece had been removed, and you could see carrots and peas under the obviously-not-pastry crust.)

      I think you could make a mince pie with ground beef, if you have a recipe for mincemeat, though. (And then there’s mock mincemeat, using not-yet-ripe-but-fullsized tomatoes with apples and raisins and spices.)

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        What do you Nimes? I presume the French based theirs on Indian dungarees, but immigrants Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis invented the riveted blue jean in San Francisco in 1871. :>)

        • Arj says:

          I always understood that ‘mincemeat’ had originally contained actual meat, which gradually fell into desuetude (though the suet remained throughout my English childhood). Seem to remember an episode of ‘Friends’ where one of the characters sets out to make a supposed English trifle and accidentally creates a hybrid monster of custard & meat because the cookbook pages are stuck together. Eek.

          As to clothing with rivets – that’ll never take off, surely?

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Don’t trifle with my mincemeat. You’re right. Minced or finely chopped meat is the equivalent of American ground meat.

          For the past 100+ years, though, mince pie and mincemeat pie has referred to a small sweet pie. Its filling typically includes sugar, dried and/or candied fruits and peel, spices, and apple, steeped in rum or brandy. Suet is the traditional fat, a remnant from earlier recipes which did include meat.

          Meat pies were often made with meat left over from earlier in the week (for those able to afford it), to which were added leftover veggies, gravy, and so on. When it became generally available – a product of Caribbean slave agriculture – sugar and sugary fruits were sometimes added to preserve the meat and make it more palatable.

        • Arj says:

          Right so. I’m not old enough to have personal recollection of mince pies with meat in ‘em (or I might also be remembering elephants in the woods, like the ancient one in ‘Lake Wobegon Days’), but the suet sticks in the memory as in the teeth; nowadays it’s often “vegetable suet” from, presumably, vegetable pigs.

        • P J Evans says:

          I happen to have a jar of mincemeat in the cupboard…it includes beef, but that’s way way down the list of ingredient, like they put in a half teaspoon in a pint or something.
          (Actual recipe, from the 1940s, calls for 1 lb of cut-up chuck plus a quarter pound of ground suet and a cup of the water the meat was cooked in, along with apples, raisins,. currants, citron, spices, and some other stuff.)

        • Rayne says:

          ~facepalm~ I swear, some arguments will never die. Consider this my wooden stake and mallet into the chest of this beast.

          A minc’s pie.
          Take a Leg of Mutton, and cut the best of the best flesh from the bone, and parboyle it well; then put to it three pound of the best Mutton suet, and shred it very small; then spred it abroad, and season it with pepper and salt, cloves, and mace; then put in good store of currants, great raysons and prunes cleane washt and pickt, a few dates flic’t, and some orange pills flic’t; then being all well mixt together, put it into a coffin, or into divers coffins, and so bake them; and when they are served up open the liddes, and strow store of suger on the top of the meate, and upon the lid. And in this sort you may also back Beefe or Veale; onely the Beefe would not be parboyled, and the Veale will aske a double quantity of suet.

          The English Hous-wifes Booke, Gervase Markham, pg. 103-104, c. 1615

          This is enough filling for about 20 pies. Some of our fans make this recipe for Christmas gifts. It is best prepared at least 2 weeks before using.
          9 quarts sliced, peeled apples
          Combine with:
          4 lb. chopped lean beef or chopped ox heart
          2 lb. chopped beef suet
          3 lb. sugar
          2 quarts cider
          4 lb. seeded raisins
          3 lb. currants
          1-1/2 lb. candied citron
          1/2 lb. dried, chopped, candied orange peel
          1/2 lb. dried, chopped, candied lemon peel
          juice and rind of 1 lemon
          1 tablespoon each cinnamon, mace, cloves
          1 teaspoon each salt and pepper
          2 whole nutmegs, grated
          1 gallon sour cherries with juice
          2 lb. broken nut meats
          (1 teaspoon powdered coriander seed)
          Simmer these ingredients about 2 hours. Use an asbestos pad to avoid scorching the mincemeat. Stir frequently. Lable into hot jars, allowing 1/2-inch headroom. Process 20 minutes at 10 pounds pressure. If using a boiling water bath, process 90 minutes. Before serving, season with: Brandy

          — Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, pg. 812, c. 1995 first Scribner edition

          It’s a minced MEAT filling, has been since before the first written recipe c. 1390; The Accomplisht Cook‘s recipe c. 1671 calls for minced neat’s tongue and sack along with the requisite fruits but no sugar. The removal of either the mincemeat pies or meat itself is a economic-political statement, the former a Protestant rejection of Catholic celebration and the latter an overthrow and replacement of meat by slave-produced sugar. Any so-called mincemeat without animal flesh in it is either MOCK mincemeat (i.e., recipes calling for green tomatoes and/or apples) or a lingering remnant of slave-supported sugar trade.

          The whackdoodle hamburger-and-apple pie making the rounds which set off this contretemps was bloody close to 1615 recipe — just poorly executed. And for gods’ sake, if you try that massive batch from Joy of Cooking, don’t can meat products unless you have a pressure canner.

        • Molly Pitcher says:

          My Grandmother grocery shopped at a small store on Solano Avenue in Albany, California. It still had hardwood floors and ancient grocery carts when I was a very little girl.

          I always asked to go to the store with her because near the door stood two giant hogshead barrels. One had dill pickles and the other had mincemeat. I would lift the lid, stick my head in and close the lid just to breath in the alcoholic fumes of the mincemeat. Heavenly.

          In a pinch, Walkers of England makes a pretty tasty little mince tartlet. They even make a larger sized tart using 12 year old Glenfiddich.

        • Mooser says:

          This information will be very helpful to me. I’m a Saucier’s Apprentice hoping to become a Chef Rabbi.

        • Arj says:

          In that case, current (currant?) UK mince pies are made with TRAVESTY mincemeat, since even the suet is usually veggie; the whole confection tends to be hopelessly acidic anyroad.

          Wooden stakes, mallets, & coffins seem to have turned this into a hot potato.

        • P J Evans says:

          The 1940s recipe makes 5 pints, and the meat gets cooked first, then ground. So it’s easier to can. (I suspect pressure canners were more common then. Today you could use an Instant-Pot.)

        • Rayne says:

          I don’t think cooking meat before/after grinding makes any difference because only a cooked product is canned. But the 1995 Joy of Cooking instruction for canning isn’t recommended by USDA which only recommends pressure canning for meats.

          Instant Pot says to limit its use to foods one would can in boiling water canner — that’d be high-acid foods like fruits and pickles, not low-acid foods like vegetables and meats. See

        • P J Evans says:

          it’s cooked twice, before grinding and, for an hour, with all the other ingredients, also chopped/ground. It’s boiled again after going into hot jars – 30 minutes from the time it water reaches a boil after the jars go in. (With the lid on the kettle.)

        • Rayne says:

          I thought your point was the timing of grinding — raw versus cooked meat. Yes, the meat is cooked before and again during canning. But unless a stove-top pressure canner is used, there’s no guarantee the canning process will reach a consistently high temp all the way through the meat. Instant Pot doesn’t want to say that it does, and frankly, changes in elevation make a huge difference in processing temperature they can’t address. Meat is very dense compared to fruits and pickles, and mincemeat recipes contain neither adequate salt or acid to ensure biological agents are killed should processing heat not do the trick.

          I personally wouldn’t touch any home canned mincemeat containing animal products if it wasn’t processed in a stove top pressure canner with a properly checked regulator, and I’ve been home canning all kinds of food products for nearly 50 years.

        • P J Evans says:

          Good Housekeeping cookbook, war years. They do recommend pressure canning for meat, fish, and non-acid foods. This version has cider (or coffee!) in it, as well as a couple of pounds of apples, which may make it acid enough to be safe. Store-bought is *much* easier….

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          There have been a few changes in English language and cooking since John of Gaunt, Chaucer, and Richard II. Your survey stakes out firm ground and was fun to read. Mine was limited to more recent practice, since about Mrs. Beeton’s era.

          As a publisher of mostly other people’s recipes, Beeton’s books are filled with contradictory advice. So, naturally, she includes both meat and meatless mince pies. I agree that the best of them, with or without meat, are made at home.

        • P J Evans says:

          The same 40s cookbook has a recipe for “mock mincemeat” which uses unripe-but-full-size tomatoes instead of meat. FWIW, I’ve eaten green-tomato pie – it wasn’t full-on “mincemeat” – and it tasted very much like the real thing. (Something you make in the fall, when your tomatoes aren’t going to ripen, but are full-size, just before they start to color, what I’ve heard called the “white” stage.)

        • Molly Pitcher says:

          Earl of H,

          I am loathe to correct you, but Levi Strauss received the patent for jeans in 1873. He opened his dry goods business in 1853. He started by hiring tailors to make pants from material intended for tents.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          But he and Jacob W. Davis invented them in 1871. Rather, Davis, the tailor, invented them, Strauss sold him the denim and provided the cash for a joint patent application. Davis also came up with the trademarked stitch design for the back pockets.

          The story reinforces the observation that invention, development, and progress are more often group efforts, as opposed to the common mythology of lone hero and subsequent millionaire.

        • bmaz says:

          Earl – “the common mythology of lone hero and subsequent millionaire.”

          Lol. Hi Elon! (Who is not exactly Michael Faraday, if you know what I mean).

        • Fran of the North says:

          I’m on record, and my daughters remind me of it constantly:

          “I’ve got no style besides Levi’s.” 501’s since university all those years ago, and nothing else.

          None o’ those fancy pants jeans, and that is for sure.

  3. e.a.f. says:

    don’t forget about French child care Its great.

    For some who lived in France, for what they thought might be their younger years, are unable to return to the U.S.A. because they will never have the health care they have in France and would die..

    Lets hope the workers in France are able to retain their standard of living and their rights.

    Usually governments try to attack unionized workers and their standard of living and working conditions. Once they destroy that, they move on to the un unionized workers.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I have direct experience with the French health care system, and have heard a number of amazing stories from my friends in Paris. It truly is a great thing to know that the health care system is about caring for people, and not about money.

      • skua says:

        A friend spoke of catching cabs in Uraguay and finding the drivers were doctors who needed a little more money than they made doing medicine – they remained doctors because they thought it important to provide healthcare.

        Everywhere is not the same.

    • Anne says:

      I lived in Italy for 25 years, and the story is quite similar there, especially the health care system and their propensity to strike.
      In Milano, the transit system could strike but not during rush hours — because that would cause the city government and the schools to close, which is illegal.

      In the early nineties, if I recall correctly, there was a major restructuring of the pension system because the math wasn’t working. The government basically said, this is a trust fund, it belongs to the workers, and Parliament has no say in changing it. The problem was turned over to the unions; I witnessed union meetings in which the math problem was explained to workers who were thus able to arrive at a consensus about what should be changed. It was all quite peaceful.
      Note: I am an Italian pensionata. We paid higher taxes but the pension is more generous than Social Security.

  4. Ed Walker says:

    For me, the best part of France is its insistence on good food from French farms. I’ve spent time in the French countryside. The fields seem to have been there for centuries. The food in the country is astonishingly good. Simple meals in restaurants, roasted chicken with potatoes and a simple sauce, seasonal vegetables, simple salads with simple dressings, a cheese course that never fails to please, and wines from the area, it’s all a revelation.

    The government supports its farmers, and defends them in the EU, with some losing battles over the occasional local cheese. This is a nation that values itself and its cultural heritage. I hope it continues that way forever.

    • e.a.f. says:

      Using food sourced in your own country, is better for the environment. Keeps money local, keeps people living in rural areas. Shipping dairy products 3K miles never made much sense to me. The French have it down pat. In some areas of North America we are seeing more local Farmers’ markets. The food is fresher, we know who is growing and handling it. The money the farmers make stays in the community. Much better than agri business, which in some cases are foreign corporations.

  5. Quinn Norton says:

    I love that this post on French benefits turned into a much longer thread on English mincemeat. All I have to add is that in pre-modern French and English cuisine, there was a lot more combining of meat and flavor profiles we think of as dessert now. You’re all lovely! :D

    • bmaz says:

      Quinn, that is, for better or worse if you will, exactly who we have always been, going back to The Next Hurrah, even before Emptywheel. It is the magic of this blog and the people that follow it and contribute to it.

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